Over the centuries, the customs and traditions around this season have transformed and changed, becoming more civilized. Here are a few that are still practised in small pockets around the world, but most have fallen away....
The Hunting of the Wren
Another level of the eternal battle between the Oak King and the Holly King is the rivalry of their companion birds. The King of the Waning Year (the Wren, companion of the Holly King) is mythically hunted and killed by the Robin, King of the Waning Year (companion of the Oak King) The Wren has his day in midsummer, along with his King, so it goes. The Christians co-opted “the Day of the Wren” and explained the ritual hunting and killing of the wren as justice for the wren betraying St Stephen. Apparently the first Christian Martyr was hiding from persecution in a hedge when a wren nearby happened to sing and gave away his position to his foes.
Another tale tells that the wren betrayed the position of a group of Irish warriors in the 700's who were in hiding from some Vikings. As the Irish crept up on the Danes to attack, a little wren, picking crumbs from the drum held by a sleeping Viking, warned the sleeping norsemen of their danger
Still another legend, this one from the Isle of man, tells us that a beautiful fairie named Cliona used to lure men to their deaths with her sweet voice. In the 19thc, Joseph Train wrote an account of a wandering knight who nearly killed her. She escaped by turning herself into a wren. According to Train, if one can possess a feather from this faerie- wren, one will be safe from shipwreck for the following year.
"Hunt the Wren Day" or "Wren's Day" or "The Hunting of the Wrens" was celebrated on December 26 in Eastern Canada (Newfoundland and Labrador) as well as in Ireland, Wales and on the Isle of Man.
"Servants walk the streets until midnight. When the bells ring out, they go and hunt the wren. Killing these tiny heralds of the holly king, they bring the dead birds to the churches, have a facetious burial where they sing traditional Manx dirges over her grave. Once the wren is taken care of, Christmas can begin on the Isle of Man."
(George Waldron- Description of the Isle of Man 1744- "forgotten english")
Feast of the Ass- Middle Ages Christian
At one time this was a solemn celebration re-enacting the flight of the holy family into Egypt and ending with Mass in the church. The festival became very popular as it transformed into a humorous parody in which the ass was led into the church and treated as an honoured guest while the priest and the congregation all brayed like asses. The Church suppressed it in the fifteenth century, although it remained popular and did not die out until years later.
Seasonal Divination was quite common
A good number of these predictions seem to revolve around finding out when young women will be married:
Germany: there is a game where they blindfold a goose.
The girls make a circle around the goose and whoever it touches first will be the first to get married.
Czechoslovakia: Cherry Tree Twigs (Barborky)
On December 4, St. Barbora's Day, an unmarried girl places a cut twig from a cherry tree into water. If there is a bloom on the twig by Christmas Eve, she will be married by the next Christmas Eve
Czechoslovakia: The Throwing of the Shoe: A maiden tosses a shoe over her shoulder towards a door. If the toe is pointing towards the door when it lands, she will be married that year.
Czechoslovakia: The Shaking of the Elder Tree
The unmarried woman shakes an elder tree. If a dog barks at that moment, she will marry a man from the direction of the barking.
In Russia, there's a Christmas divination that involves candles. A girl would sit in a darkened room, with two lighted candles and two mirrors, pointed so that one reflects the candlelight into the other. The viewer would seek the seventh reflection, then look until her future would be seen.
In Austria, legend says that unmarried girls can see their future on St. Thomas Night, if they climb into bed over a stool and throw their shoes toward the door, the toes of the shoes pointing downward. If they sleep with their heads at the foot of the bead, the dreams will reveal visions of their future husbands. Also, if a single woman on St. Thomas Day can pick out a young rooster from among a brood of sleeping chicks, she will soon obtain a husband, or see him in her dreams. http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/activities/view.cfm?id=972
Snapdragon- a parlour game (European)
Snap-dragon (or flap-dragon) was a game in which people tried to snatch raisins out of a bowl of burning brandy. A player would then pop the raisins in the mouth to extinguish them! The game is played with the lights turned off, and a successful player will be seen with blue flames dripping from their hands and mouth. The game was mainly played in England, Canada, and the U.S. from the 16thc to the 19thc. The custom of playing Snap-dragon at Christmas or Twelfth Night died out because of the obvious danger, but still survives here and there.
The Mock King/ The Lord of Misrule
As you may see if you read the traditions of the ancients, there was a time when the king of a land represented its health and prosperity. If there was a drought, or hard times, a king might be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice of his life to imbue the land with his divine essence.
Before long, clever kings started thinking this sacrificing the self was a possible drawback to the job thus struck upon the idea of the mock king. They would pick a likely candidate and make that man king for a day. He could go where he wanted, eat what he wanted, boss people around like an actual noble. In exchange for that day of glory, he puts his head under the axe instead of the king.
By the middle ages, the whole sacrifice thing had disappeared but the Mock King was still in full force. Every household performed the ritual of choosing.
A bean or coin was cooked or baked into a dish and the recipient was king for the night, called "The Lord of MIsrule". This 'lord' could demand entertainments of their companions and had the task of keeping everyone amused for the evening.
In the heart of folklore, the Mock King is considered a special kind of jester who rises magically from the crowd.
The bean is still baked into some traditional dishes though, sadly, it no longer confers the crown of undeniable mischief that it once did.
The Must Have Christmas Meal of 1885
A ritual of renewal and gratitude for the bounty of the crops. Farmers go out to their orchards with drink and guns. They choose the oldest apple tree. They chant to the tree as they circle it. An 1851 London newspaper reported these words:
thee, old apple tree
thou mayst bud and whence thou mayst blow
thou mayst bear apples enow:
bushels, sacks full,
pockets full too!
The farmers have filled their pistols with only powder and they fire these at the tree as they drink and celebrate.
When they return to their homes the women refuse them entry until they can guess the name of the roast being prepared for them. Once the game is completed with a correct guess, all are allowed in. He who has guessed the name of the roast is celebrated as "King for the Evening" and is in charge of merry making for the whole night (ghost of the Mock King rituals)